Tisha B’Av – Oy Vey! Mourning and the Book of Lamentations

By Jean Gerber

In 586 BCE, around the ninth of the month of Av, a Babylonian army captured Jerusalem and burned it to the ground. The Temple, centre of worship and sacrifice, was destroyed, its priests killed or deported along with the nobility and pretty much anyone who could read or write. Thousands of Israelites were deported to Babylon, capitol of the then-greatest empire in the Middle East. The king was blinded and led off in chains.


It was the greatest catastrophe to strike our nation, and a dagger to the heart of our religion. Prophets and psalmists mourned:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion

…our tormenters asked of us mirth, ‘Sing us the songs of Zion.’

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning…


And yet our people did sing, even as they mourned their losses. The Book of Lamentations gives us a good idea of the tropes used to memorialize that unforgettable catastrophe.


The 9th day of Av began to attract, like a mournful magnet, a collection of catastrophes. The Roman destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, the 1492 expulsion from Spain, the Crusades; and many more were ascribed to that same date in our calendar. The enormity of the Holocaust has required its own day of remembrance separate from Tisha B’Av. But the instinct is the same, to recall and lament our losses in some concrete way.


Some secular Zionists have argued that with the rebirth of the State of Israel after twenty centuries, there is no longer a need to recall the loss of the ancient Temple (in which they wouldn’t worship anyway). They assert that the Temple and sacrificial worship has been completely replaced by the nation-state, eliminating the need to wail and lament, fast, and pray.


And yet, and yet…


One year in Israel, I joined a group tracing the route of the destruction of the second Temple. We walked from west Jerusalem along the boundary of the Roman camp and to the final breakthrough of their armies, ending at the Kotel. There we found dozens of small prayer groups sitting on the ground, and reading Eicha (Lamentations) by candlelight, as if the Temple mount was still in flames.


It was a startling and moving moment that forcefully brought the catastrophe home with its powerful feelings of tragic and profound loss. We must remember that for the Jews of centuries past, the destruction represented an acute loss of contact with the Divine. They believed that only through sacrifice and ceremony could they actually touch the eternal. What would happen next? Was it all lost forever?


Well, no. The Rabbis, led by Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, began to construct the fortress of Halachah and prayer, through which that essential connection with God could remain and flourish today.